Anytime a band deliberately moves to put a shine on its irreverent, sweat-soaked image, there will inevitably be a critical flogging doled out by the group’s most ardent supporters. Indeed, claims of “phoning it in” and “selling out” are prevalent in these circumstances. It’s difficult to imagine a fiery hardcore act like San Francisco’s Ceremony similarly derided for tidying up its sound a tad and moving to the same record label as indie pop darlings Belle and Sebastian, but here we are.
The Bay Area five-piece has been unleashing malevolent outbursts in the vein of Dillinger Escape Plan and genre forbears Black Flag since 2006, and while their newest LP does indeed find them scaling back on the most manic and confrontational aspects of their sound, it’s not like Ross Farrar and his mates are now in a position to be angling for radio airplay. Musicians who admit to a strong influence from the likes of Suicidal Tendencies and Pink Floyd don’t often find themselves being courted by the mainstream, and it’s Ceremony’s love of the latter that steps to the fore on Zoo, where typically rowdy songs have been fused to a greater number of midtempo grooves and psychedelic atmospheres.
Whatever the band loses in spastic energy and volatility on Zoo, it gains in melodic constancy. Farrar’s shriek is more of a holler now, even on the heaviest tracks like “Citizen” and the galloping “Quarantine,” where the frontman implores the listener, “Call the police / turn me in!” Whereas the guitars were often used to generate abrasive squalls of cacophony on previous efforts like Violence, Violence and Rohnert Park, they are also treated with a newfound tunefulness here – opening track “Hysteria” briefly references “Iron Man” before catapulting into a series of elastic drum fills and wordless vocals that blend seamlessly with the Hagar-esque guitar riffs.
What separates Zoo most overtly from its predecessors though are cuts like “Repeating the Circle” and “Nosebleed,” both of which highlight a warped breed of psychedelia only now being indulged. The former sports a memorable bass guitar hook and a 45-second coda of careening feedback, while the latter employs a longer form (4+ minutes!) to generate a quasi-nightmarish soundtrack fit for an acid trip sequence in a movie. Nothing comes close to “Video” though, which closes out the album in uncharacteristically hypnotic fashion thanks to muted guitar work, darker vocal timbres, and minimalist rhythms similar to that of the XX.
Zoo is undoubtedly a less raucous and reckless affair than any other Ceremony album, but don’t go running for your old Social Distortion records just yet. If Henry Rollins can get away with a televised performance at the Grammys after a career with Black Flag, it should be entirely permissible for Ceremony to satiate their Velvet Underground/Stooges/Pink Floyd whims too. This, by the way, is infinitely less awkward.